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THESE DEAD LANDS DESOLATION: Derail

August 14, 2019 2 comments

 

The road–or rails–to Colorado Springs are fraught with peril. As Hastings and the rest of the regular Army heads for Fort Bragg, Sergeant First Class Ballantine and his lightfighters are tasked to get their dependents and the rest of the civilians to the fortress city of Colorado Springs.

As always…shit happens.

Also as always…what follows is unedited and may or may not appear in the final version. If interested, click the graphic above to pre-order your copy of These Dead Lands: Desolation today!

It took twenty minutes to offload the trucks, MRAPs, and the tankers. Both of the HEMTs were full of diesel. Bellara instructed Ballantine and his team to take four MRAPs and two five-tons forward to the passenger coaches and assigned one extra soldier for each vehicle, including Robinson. Together, the lightfighters and the Guardsmen would load up as many civilians as possible while Bellara and the remainder of his company oversaw the rest of the unloading operations. With the remnants of Paulick’s unit under his control, the captain had more manpower to throw around, so it wouldn’t take terribly long to free up the remaining vehicles. Ballantine himself drove one of the HEMTs, more out of curiosity than need. He’d never horsed around one of the big tactical trucks before, and while its mass ensured it wouldn’t move quickly, it was reasonably surefooted on the grass strip next to the train tracks. Like most modern Army vehicles, it was dumbed down enough to where anyone with training or just common sense could handle it, complete with an automatic transmission and power-assisted steering. Its Detroit Diesel engine wouldn’t win any stealth awards and the big, eight-wheeled tactical truck lacked air conditioning, but that wasn’t a problem for the moment. A cold front had settled in over the Chicagoland area, bringing with it ambient temperatures in the high sixties.

If not for the fucking zombies and all the wounded, be a nice night to kick back with a beer.

Hartman had the lead MRAP, and the rest of the column formed up on his as he drove to the passenger coaches. There were plenty of dismounted military surrounding them. Whenever the C-RAM ripped a salvo through the night, the individual soldiers’ shadows grew long and tall in the light given off by the weapon’s six-barreled gun. One of the locomotives was fully involved with fire now, emitting a huge greasy plume of smoke that roiled as it climbed into the still air.

“Devil Dog, Crusader One Seven,” he said over his radio. Beside him, Lieutenant Robinson sat cradling her rifle, her face turned toward the distant fires of Chicago and the much closer columns of the dead. Individual corpses were visible now, heading toward the wrecked train. Several had deviated course, drawn toward the C-RAM’s explosive plume. They were inside the gun’s effective range.

“Send it, Crusader.” In the background of Everson’s transmission, Ballantine heard an array of startled voices, cries, and shouted orders. Clearly, the old man had made it back to the passenger coaches.

“We’re rolling up to your pos now. Four MRAPs, two five-tons, two HEMT tankers. I want you to start staging the dependents and get them collocated in the lead MRAP. Help transfer Sergeant Martin. We have enough bodies to drive, but that’s about it. Have the medics start picking out the injured they can save. Good copy on that?”

“Roger all,” Everson replied immediately. “I think I see your vehicles approaching. Drop the ramps on those MRAPs. We’re coming out now.”

The column ground to a halt beside the derailed cars. Ballantine set the parking brake but left the engine running. “How do you want to do this, LT?” he asked. When Robinson didn’t turn away from looking out the window in the HEMT’s passenger door, Ballantine leaned across the wide cab and shook her shoulder. “Hey, Lieutenant! You with me?”

She turned back to him then, and the NVGs hid her eyes from view. Just the same, Ballantine was certain he’d see nothing but mounting terror in them. The dead were coming, and they had to stop.

“With you, Sergeant,” she said, and her voice was strong.

“We have to load up. How do you want us to do this? I’d like to put as many civilians in the MRAPs as possible, and shooters in the five-tons. We can carry some on the tankers, too—none of the reekers are going to be shooting back, and we might need guys cleaning the dead off if they manage to get a hold of us.”

“I’ll ensure some of the troops make sure the dead don’t make it close enough for us to worry about,” Robinson said. “I agree, try and get as many of the civvies in the MRAPs. We’re going to have to lash everything we can carry to the trucks and tankers. Make sure we have enough food and water and everything else we might need. No telling how long we’ll be on the road.”

“Roger that. So you’ll oversee security, then?”

“I’m on it, Sergeant Ballantine.”

“Hooah.”

With that, Ballantine bailed out of the HEMT and slammed the door closed as soon as his boots were on the ground. He made his way toward the passenger coach as the C-RAM hurled more hate toward the horizon, blasting a long, arcing stream of large-caliber rounds through the air. It looked almost like a pulsing laser beam, and the intensity of its illumination was so strong it threatened to overwhelm his goggles.

The rest of the guys dismounted and headed for the coach. Guerra was among them, not allowing his tweaked leg to slow him down for an instant as he hobbled along. Ballantine caught up to him and grabbed his shoulder.

“Guerra, stay out here,” he said, raising his voice over the mounting gunfire. “You’re fucked up, I think you should stay with the vehicles.”

“I’m good,” Guerra replied.

“The fuck you are! Get back to the lead MRAP, make sure no one fucks with it! Get off that leg!”

“It ain’t the leg, it’s the ankle,” Guerra said. “Carl, I’m good. Really.”

“Then prove it by doing what I told you to do, man.” Even over the noise of combat and his earphones, he heard Kenny shrieking away. He saw him a moment later, wrapped around Diana like a cheap coat, screaming his head off. Diana struggled with him as Everson appeared in the coach’s door. The older man supported Martin as he slowly eased his way down the boarding stairs, where one of Bellara’s medics waited for him.

“Martin will drive,” Ballantine told Guerra.

“What? The man’s got a busted leg, for God’s sake!”

“Yeah, his left leg. His right is fine, so he can work the pedals,” Ballantine said. “Just long enough for us to get out of here. That way we can have shooters on their guns.”

“You’re pairing me up with him?”

“Damn straight—call your ride the Gimp Express.”

Guerra shook his head. “Cold, Carl. Cold.”

“Get to it.” Ballantine stepped away from Guerra and hurried toward Kenny and Diana. Diana watched him approach, her expression uncertain. Ballantine understood why. She didn’t have any night vision gear, and to her he probably looked like a Terminator coming to take her down. Clearly, Kenny felt that way. As soon as he became aware of Ballantine’s approach, his cries grew even louder. Ballantine hadn’t thought that was possible.

“Diana, it’s Ballantine,” he told her.

“Nice get up,” Diana responded. “Must remember that look for the next Comic Con show, because it certainly scares the shit out of Kenny.”

“Let’s get you guys loaded up,” Ballantine told her. He pointed to the first MRAP. “Can you see that vehicle over there with the lowered rear ramp? We’re going to put you guys in that one.”

The C-RAM fired again, sending a hail tracers outbound as the bright plume of yellow flame from its muzzles seared the night. The weapon was firing rapidly now, sweeping from side to side. Troops horsed around ammunition magazines, staging them for loading. The C-RAM was a thirsty beast, and it depleted the loaded ammo drum in almost a single pass now. Rifle fire was barking more consistently now, and one of the M249 machineguns mounted in one of the five-ton’s gunnery rings chattered as the Guardsman there sighted on targets. Up range from Ballantine’s position, a GAU-19 howled. He looked in that direction and saw a couple of gun trucks rolling down the derailed train’s length, their .50-caliber weapons lighting up targets inside eight hundred meters.

Kenny screamed again, severely stressed by all the commotion. Diana firmed her grip on him but he almost wrenched her off her feet as he suddenly bolted, attempting to run off into the night. Diana kept a hold of him, but he was so frightened he managed to drag her along for a few feet. For a little guy, Kenny was a powerhouse when adrenaline was factored in.

“Kenny, stop!” she yelled.

“Here, I’ve got him!” Ballantine hitched up his rifle and swept Kenny up into his arms and held him tight. Kenny responded by trying to head butt him, but Ballantine turned away from the attack. While the boy couldn’t seriously hurt him, he could definitely damage his goggles, and Ballantine needed to preserve those. He hugged Kenny tight, wrapping him up in his big arms as he did his best to immobilize him. Kenny fought back, shrieking and thrashing and kicking and biting. The boy was a handful, and Ballantine was seriously glad he had so much ballistic armor to take the punishment.

“Got some jalapeño cheese for you, Kenny!” Ballantine said, yelling over the thundering gun and the increasing rifle fire. “Got some hot cheese for you!”

None of this mattered to Kenny at the moment, and he continued to rage and cry, struggling against Ballantine like a wild animal. Ballantine hurried toward the first MRAP and climbed up its ramp with Diana right behind. He shoved Kenny into one of the taupe-colored seats and pinned him in place.

“Strap him in, then sit on him if you have to,” Ballantine told Diana as she mounted the vehicle behind him. “Come on, hurry it up—we’ve got to get everyone aboard and seal the ramp on this fucker.”

“You do it. I’ve got him.” Diana pulled the little rifle around until it hung behind her then grabbed Kenny’s shoulders and pushed him into the seat. She grunted as he kicked her savagely, still screaming his head off. “Fuck! Do it quick, the little bastard’s going to break my ribs!”

Ballantine grabbed the harness and pulled it around Kenny’s body. Tightening the straps as much as he could, he buckled him in. The system hadn’t been designed to restrain a child, but it would have to do. Kenny continued to thrash and howl, tears pouring down his face. Ballantine put a hand on his head as he reached into one of his cargo pockets and pulled out a package of jalapeño cheese spread and handed it to Diana.

“Here, give this a shot,” he said. As he spoke, the MRAP’s driver door opened. Ballantine turned toward it, instinctively raising his rifle even though a thick metal bulkhead partially obscured the operator’s compartment from the passenger area. He watched as Sergeant Trevor Martin laboriously climbed aboard, assisted by Everson and Guerra. The cavalryman slid behind the MRAP’s steering wheel and set his rifle down between the front seats before he gingerly positioned his injured leg in the foot well. He wore his NVGs and he full facial armor, like the kind the aviators wore. All the gear conspired to make him look like a cyborg warrior from the future.

“Martin, you good?” Ballantine asked.

“As many pills as I popped? I’m fucking flying, man,” Martin replied.

“Seriously? You fucked up?”

Martin half turned in the MRAP’s driver’s seat and shot him a thumbs up. “I’m good, Ballantine. Don’t get a flop sweat around your ball sack, okay?”

“Can you drive this pig in your condition?”

“Trust me.” Martin reached over and pulled the door closed and secured it before setting about buckling himself in. “If I have to, I can fly this thing out of here.”

Movement to the rear caught Ballantine’s attention and he spun, shouldering his rifle. He saw Everson shepherding Kay and kids forward while Guerra stood in the background. As Ballantine watched, Guerra shouldered his rifle and capped off two shots to the north.

Are they that close? Ballantine wondered, and a shard of dread pierced his heart.

“Dad!” Curtis launched himself at Ballantine and grabbed onto him, and Ballantine had to raise his rifle so the kid didn’t blunder into it. It was plenty dark inside the MRAP, with the only illumination coming from the dashboard lights, so chances were good Curtis hadn’t even seen the weapon. Ballantine wasted no time in shoving him into the seat across from Diana.

“Sit there!” he snapped. “Kay, I need you across from Kenny! Diana’s going to need your help!”

“Coming,” Kay said, pushing Josh before her.

“No, come now! Everson, take Josh!” As he spoke, Ballantine stepped forward and knelt on the seat beside Diana, making enough room for Kay to pass by him.

“Got him,” Everson said, and he reached out and grabbed Josh’s left arm and pulled him aside. “Go ahead, Mrs. Ballantine.”

Kay made an angry sound and crept forward, groping in the pitch black. Ballantine saw everything courtesy of his NVGs, and he reached out and grabbed her hand. Without pausing to be dainty, he pulled her forward and forced her into the seat across from Kenny.

“Carl!” she snapped, doubtless upset at the way he manhandled her into position.

“We’re in a fucked up situation, Kay,” he snapped back. “Do as I tell you when I tell you!”

“I’m not one of your soldiers, I’m your wife!”

Guerra cracked off another two rounds. “I tried telling him the same shit once, Kay. Didn’t work for me.”

Kenny continued to scream, rejecting the cheese spread Diana offered him. Ballantine grabbed one of Kay’s hands and guided it toward Kenny.

“Kay, I need you to help Diana with Kenny,” he said. “We can’t close the ramp until we get this vehicle loaded up, so I’ve got to leave.”

“Where are you going?”

“I’m not staying here, babe,” he told her. “I’ve got things to do. You guys will be secure. Martin and Guerra and Bill will be traveling with you, and you’ve all got weapons.” As he spoke, Everson shoved Guerra’s sniper rifle into the MRAP. He disappeared from view for a few moments, then returned lugging two heavy rucksacks. He dumped them into the back of the vehicle with a huff as Josh picked his way forward through the darkness.

“Joshie, right there,” Ballantine said. “You’re right across from Diana and next to your brother. Sit down.” He guided his oldest son toward the seat he wanted him in. “We’ll turn on the lights after the tail gate is closed, okay?”

“Won’t they see it?” Josh asked.

“It won’t matter, kid. This vehicle weighs over fifteen tons. They’ll never be able to get in. Trust me.”

“Carl, where are you going to go?” Kay repeated.

“I have to make sure the column is secure, Kay,” he told her. “I can’t stay here.”

“Carl, we’re your family!” Kay’s voice was loud in the narrow confines of the MRAP, even with Kenny’s howling and Guerra’s firing. A louder report made them all wince as Everson let off a single shot.

“See, Guerra? That’s how you do this kind of shit,” Everson said.

“Pretty good, old man—took that runner out nicely.” There was true respect in Guerra’s voice.

“Mr. Everson, we have three empty seats not including yours and space for a couple more people,” Ballantine said, shouting as the C-RAM fired off again. And in the background, there was a mechanical howl. Someone had started one of the excavator mulchers that had been loaded onto the forward flat bed rail cars. That meant the reekers were now danger close, only a hundred or so meters away. As if to confirm this, the rifle fire increased almost exponentially. The rhythmic thump-thump-thump of a Mark 19 grenade launcher added weight to the presumption. In the midst of it all, he heard Lieutenant Robinson shouting orders, orienting the warfighters onto their targets.

“I’ll round up some more souls, Sergeant,” Everson said. “You want civilian, or military?”

“Civilian, please,” Ballantine said. “Military will ride in the five tons. And Everson… only those who’re going to live. If they’re too badly injured—”

“Oorah.” With that, the old man with the long gray hair was gone, fading away into the night.

Ballantine reached out and touched Kay’s face. “All right. Leaving now. Help Diana with Kenny.” Before she could say anything, he pushed himself to his feet. Crouched over inside the MRAP, he put a hand on each of his boys’s shoulders. “Look after your mom for me. I’ll be on the radio, so if you need me, just call. Your mom knows how to do it, and so does Mr. Everson. Listen to him and Sergeant Guerra and Sergeant Martin. Okay?”

“Daddy, don’t go!” Curtis said, and his voice was suddenly small and scared.

“Josh will help take care of you, Curty,” Ballantine said. He put his hand on Josh’s head. “Right?”

“I will,” Josh said, but his voice was small and fearful as well.

“Good boy. Help Diana and your mom with Kenny, all right? He’s helpless. He needs you guys.”

“Okay,” Josh said, and there was little resolve in his voice. Ballantine felt terrible. His boys were scared to death, and they needed him near. But Hastings’s words came back to him, and in that moment they carried tremendous weight.

Get in the fight, God damn you!

“You’ll all be fine,” he told them. “I have to be outside, but I’ll be doing everything I can. You’re all golden.”

“No we’re not,” Diana hissed. “Not until someone gets me that box of diapers!”

These Dead Lands: Desolation drops on October 22, 2019.

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THESE DEAD LANDS DESOLATION: Filling In The Center

He moved forward into the field, capping off reekers as he advanced. The screamers and runners had already met their fate—now he was just taking down shamblers and walkers. Just the same, it was stressful. Advancing upon an enemy that knew no fear and would never back down took a pair of brass ones, and knowing his family was only a few hundred feet away made that even harder. But he’d disgraced himself when he’d hesitated to jump in and save Kenny. So here in the darkness of night, where no one who wasn’t wearing night vision goggles would notice, Sergeant First Class Carl Ballantine set about making himself whole again.

 

THESE DEAD LANDS: DESOLATION–FAITH

As the surviving members of the 10th Mountain Division shoots the rails on a gigantic train, Stilley has a conflict. But all he needs is a little faith.

“Not necessary. Get some rest.” Ballantine turned to Stilley. “What I said about your people is the real deal. If they can hold out long enough, we’ll get to them.”

“They dead, Sergeant,” Stilley said, and for once his voice was soft and barely audible.

“You can’t think like that, man.” Tharinger was the one who spoke. “You have to hold onto that shit. It gives you life, dude.”

Stilley looked at him, and his eyes were white against his dark skin. “You want me to lie to myself for a while, right?”

“Want you to have faith, bro,” Tharinger said. “Faith, man. We all need it now.”

EARTHFALL 2: Tylenol Isn’t Enough

January 10, 2019 Leave a comment

Sage words from Mulligan when setting up on an enemy.

“They’re a diversion, an irritant. We’ll be the real pain.”

EARTHFALL 2: All Andrews Wants For Christmas…

…are his two front teeth.

 

“I rather think you should stay with the SCEV, Sergeant Major.”

“I rather think you should want to keep your front teeth, sir.”

EARTHFALL 2: Contact

October 12, 2018 Leave a comment

After making their way into Oregon, the field team aboard SCEV 4 finally finds some goodness after weeks on the road.

More from Earthfall 2. As always, first draft stuff, unedited, no guarantee what you read here will be in the final release.

The route was fairly straightforward to plan, since they already had a good idea of the lay of the land between their points of departure and arrival. By the time they had recovered the drone, the cloud ceiling had dropped even further and the wind was picking up. If they hadn’t recalled the unit when they had, it would have automatically landed somewhere along its flight path and the crew would have had to drive over to retrieve it manually. As it happened, the drone had just lowered itself into its cradle and shut down before the first gust of powerful wind came rolling out of the mountains.

“Losing that could have sucked,” Leona said as the drone automatically folded its rotor booms against its body after landing in the cradle. It began recharging as soon as it shut down via the charging pad that lined the landing bay’s floor. The door to the small bay closed with a distant clunk that was audible inside the rig.

“Yeah, I’m thinking we’re definitely going to be needing it later, once the wind dies down.” Andrews looked around at Mulligan, Leona, and KC. “Okay guys, here’s the mission brief. We leave here, drive there, and look around. That’s about it, aside from the possibility we might not be able to get through that barricade. If we can’t, or find a reasonable way around it, we’ll shut down nearby and wait for the weather to improve enough the launch the drone again. Questions?”

“We’ll need to post lookouts if we’re going to be hanging out near potential hostiles,” Mulligan said. “Sure, we have enough warning systems to wake the dead if someone approaches the rig, but we’d be well served having someone up and ready at all times. Also, I’d like the minis put in autodefense mode. Safeties off and ready to fire.”

“Good God, why?” Leona asked.

“Again, potential hostiles,” Mulligan said. “We don’t get too many chances out here, and for all we know, they might have anti-armor weapons. An SCEV is plenty tough, but anything that can destroy a tank or an APC can destroy the rig as well.”

“I’m not sure we need to worry about shooting people in the face, Mulligan,” Leona said.

Mulligan frowned. “Jordello, is that you? What have you done with Lieutenant Eklund, the nice sensible girl who understands how things work?”

Leona smiled and shook her head. “Ha-ha.”

“I get where you’re going, Sarmajor,” Andrews said. “I agree a hundred percent. If we shut down before we know who we’re dealing with, we continue as if we’re in bandit country and do what we have to do in order to protect ourselves. Lee, KC, issues?”

“Not really, no,” Leona said.

“It makes sense to me, sir,” KC said. “I mean, the sarmajor’s been drilling that stuff into our heads for months now, right?”

Mulligan turned to her. “Did you just try to give the teacher an apple?”

KC looked at him oddly. “I…I don’t know what that means…?”

Mulligan sighed and waved it away. “Before your time, kid. Never mind.” To Andrews: “What else, sir?”

“Brief complete. I’ve got left seat. Mulligan, you’re co,” Andrews said as he pushed past the hulking sergeant major and headed for the cockpit. “Let’s roll, boys and girls.”

***

The SCEV drove through the gray day for almost two hours, climbing higher and higher into the hills surrounding the decayed city of Bend, Oregon. Its big tires rolled without a care across weathered, cracked pavement and loose soil alike. Twice they had to backtrack to avoid obstacles—in one case, it was a fallen building, in the other a gigantic deadfall of rotting trees—but aside from those incidents the vehicle made good time. As they traveled, Leona reviewed the drone footage captured during its overflight of the town of Sisters. She determined the town would likely be safe enough to travel through, which meant they could stick to the more-or-less flat roadways and spare the crew a lot of bouncing around. That was a bit of a boon, since even the unmaintained roads were absolutely superior to picking their way through unfamiliar rising terrain.

Not to mention a whole lot faster, Andrews thought.

The trip through Sisters was uneventful, if not a touch eerie. Andrews maneuvered the rig carefully, choosing to hand-drive the vehicle instead of allowing the autopilot to see it through the course. He divided his attention between looking out the viewports and glancing at the radar returns on the MFD before him as he used the millimeter wave radar system as a backup nav aid while threading the hulking SCEV through the detritus that filled the town’s main street. From the corner of his eye though, he observed Mulligan in quick snatches. The big man was quiet as he sat in the co-pilot’s seat, ostensibly doing his job. Andrews wondered if it was an act. The town of Sisters was quite similar in many respects to Scott City, that dusty Kansas town where Mulligan’s family had met their end.

“Things cool over there, Big Sarge?” he asked finally.

Mulligan didn’t turn to him. “Yes. Why?”

“Just asking.”

“You’re always just asking. Trust me here, Captain. If I was going to snap my cap and go off the deep end, it would’ve happened years ago.”

Andrews snorted. “I know. Just checking in.”

“Thank you sir, but please…stop that shit. It bothers the hell out of me.”

“As much as Lee calling you Sam?”

Mulligan let out a heavy sigh. “That crowning indignity would be hard to top.”

Andrews laughed, then sobered a bit when he caught sight of several corpses lying in the lee of a building. Their clothes were tattered, but still recognizable. Jeans, coats, boots, a flannel shirt here, a camo jacket there. They were clustered together, and as the rig passed, Andrews saw two were adults, the other two were much smaller. Children. A family, and they’d died holding onto each other.

Holy fuck.

“Eyes forward, sir,” Mulligan said.

“Hooah.” Andrews returned to his job, which was driving the SCEV. After a moment, he said, “Listen, what are your thoughts on this? When we meet these folks, what’s your preferred plan of attack?”

“You mean procedurally, or personally?”

“Personally.”

“Been thinking about that. I say don’t rush it. Might be best to just observe for a while and see if we can figure out who it is we might wind up dealing with. In fact, we might want to even drop back after making our initial recon without actually contacting them.”

Andrews frowned. “Seriously?”

Mulligan stirred in his seat slightly. “Seriously. I mean to say, it’s a consideration. We could verify their existence, then leave them be. Wait to rendezvous with Five when they get up here, then go in as a team. Personally, I’d like the backup. And if there’s any shooting, I’d prefer Slattery takes the heat, not me.”

Andrews snorted again. “Come on, Mulligan.”

“All right, just kidding about Slattery, though he is a slacker. But I’m definitely serious about hanging out and watching for a bit before we establish contact. However…if it comes to that, you and I should be the ones who handle the encounter. Eklund’s too smart to risk right now, and Winters is too young. Not enough experience.”

“We can hear you, you know,” Leona said from the second compartment.

“I’m not giving out state secrets here,” Mulligan said. “The captain asked a cogent question. We’re undermanned, and the usual plan is the rig commander and an SME, usually the team medic, initiate contact. Since we don’t have a medic assigned and you’re fulfilling that role as well, Lieutenant, I’m the logical choice to accompany the captain on account both commander and XO can’t disembark at the same time.”

“We probably have some time to discuss this further,” Leona said, but from her cool tone Andrews could tell she didn’t like what the incubating contact plan was.

“We will,” Andrews said. “First things first. Let’s verify we’ve found them, then we’ll decide on what to do.”

“Sir, I have a question,” KC said.

“What’s that, Kace?”

“What if they come to us?” she asked. “I mean, it is possible they might actually be happy to see us, right?”

“Fair point,” Andrews said, “and it sure is possible. After a decade or so scrounging off whatever they can find in the area, they might be looking forward to a touch of advanced civilization again. Without resorting to violence,” he threw in, glancing over at Mulligan.

Mulligan raised his hands in mock surrender. “Hey, cease fire. I’m hoping that’s exactly how they behave. It would be a bit of a refreshing change of pace.”

Andrews shot Mulligan a thumbs up. “So KC, to answer your question. If they approach us in a non-hostile fashion, we’ll receive them the same way. No one will be allowed on the rig, but the sergeant major and I will go out to them and see what they have to say.”

“I thought we were going to discuss that part a bit further,” Leona said.

“We will, but that doesn’t mean the decision hasn’t already been made,” Andrews said, keeping his tone as light as possible. “Procedurally, the commander is supposed to lead the engagement, and I can’t have both you and I out of the rig at the same time. Mulligan’s right about that.”

“Mulligan has more experience than both of us put together,” Leona said. “Let him stay behind. He can operate the rig single-pilot forever and a day.”

“Subtext: ‘Yeah, don’t let the old fucker have any fun’ is what she’s getting at,” Mulligan said.

Andrews held up his right hand. “Okay, guys. Baby steps, all right?”

The decrepit town of Sisters fell behind them as the SCEV bore to the right and followed the two-lane highway to the north and west. It pushed through the remains of a barrier that had been erected on the settlement’s northwestern side. If it had been designed to hold back anything substantial, it had certainly failed. More likely, whomever had attacked the town had destroyed it on the way out. It did not appear the attackers had stayed, but had simply raided and rolled out. The road beyond was fairly clear, save for where old, dead pine trees had fallen across it. Many of those rotted husks had already been crushed beneath vehicular traffic, and those which hadn’t didn’t cause the SCEV to slow even one iota. Andrews felt the pressure of excitement beginning to build in his chest, and he pushed the control column forward a bit more. The rig accelerated up to forty miles per hour. Mulligan glanced over at him, but said nothing.

He feels it too.

As the rig roared down the desolate highway, droplets of water spattered against the diamond-matrix view ports. First it was just a few, then a dozen. Then it was full-on rain, hammering the rig with a vengeance. It came down in heavy sheets that were blown by the wind. An actual storm had coalesced seemingly right overhead. Andrews heard the rain pouring across the top of the vehicle. The tires were already splashing through quickly-forming puddles.

Mulligan switched on the wipers, and they went to work immediately, slapping back and forth. “Well, at least they work!”

“Leona, can you run an analysis on the rainwater?” Andrews asked.

“Already on it. Getting some good volume here through the vacuum pump. Just need a few minutes for the initial pass.”

“Awesome,” Andrews said.

“Hey, Captain. Slow down a bit, huh? You’re up to almost fifty,” Mulligan said. “We’re excited about the mission and all, but the last thing we want to do is hydroplane off the road. Hooah?”

“Heh, you got it, Sarmajor.” Andrews eased back on the control column, bringing the SCEV back to a sedate thirty miles per hour. He checked the radar display, then pressed a button on the MFD. The imagery was transferred to the heads-up display before him, overlaying what he saw outside the view ports. It was getting suddenly dark. As if anticipating the command, Mulligan reached to the overhead panel and switched on the rig’s LED lights. They cut a brilliant swath through the gathering gloom.

“Turn off in one mile,” Mulligan reported.

“Roger, got it.”

The rig continued plowing through the stormy day. Light flared suddenly as a lance of brilliant lightning cut across the sky, momentarily drowning out even the glare of the SCEV’s LED arrays. A moment later, there came a basso boom they could hear through the rig’s thick hull. Thunder.

“God damn!” Andrews said. “This is sure some shit, Sarmajor!”

“Not like the dust storms we get down south, eh?” Mulligan replied. More lightning arced, stabbing from cloud to cloud, illuminating the heavens for them. “See how bright that lightning is? That’s not just some paltry static discharge caused by a turbinado, that’s true Mother Nature at work, boy.”

“Never seen anything like this before,” Andrews said. “It is pretty awe-inspiring.”

“Well, get ready for some more awesome news,” Leona said from the command intel station. “This rainwater? It’s remarkably pure. Like almost ninety-nine percent pure.”

“Ain’t nothing ninety-nine percent pure,” Mulligan said.

“Well, not after you had your way with me, no.”

Mulligan looked suddenly stricken, and Andrews and KC both cackled with laughter at the big man’s discomfiture. After a moment, Mulligan laughed along with them. Even though they were in unknown territory and cruising through a potentially dangerous thunderstorm, the crew’s spirits were higher than they’d ever been in that moment.

They approached the turn-off onto the road that would lead them into the higher elevations. A bent, battered metal sign declared there was a camping ground ahead. Sure enough, more tattered, weathered tents were clustered at the site. Also present were demolished trailers and even a vintage motor home. The motor home’s wheels were gone, and its door was torn halfway from its hinges. Whether that was from weather or something more malevolent, Andrews could not tell.

Mulligan peered at the old vehicle through the rain-streaked windows. “Wow, an early 1970s Winnebago Brave. That thing probably has more living space than we do.”

“Having fun walking down memory lane, Sam?” Leona asked.

“Stop calling me that!” Mulligan snapped.

“That’s the price you pay for confining me to the vehicle,” Leona snapped back. She was actually getting a little pissy that it appeared Andrews would be taking Mulligan with him when it came time to contact the survivors. Andrews couldn’t think of a way to smooth that over, other than allow her to accompany Mulligan instead of him…and that just wasn’t going to happen.

The privileges of command, he thought.

He slowed the vehicle to a crawl as it approached the next waypoint, then slowly guided it into a right turn. Water was already starting to cascade down the highway in waves. It seemed that at least an inch of rain had already fallen over the past several minutes, and the skies were darkening even more. As a counterpoint, another bolt of lightning pierced the cloud cover and rippled past overhead. The ensuing explosion was loud.

“Ground strike!” Andrews said, responding to the visual alert that flashed across the MFDs. “Good thing we’re shielded.”

“Let’s not take that for granted,” Mulligan said. “Remember, these things were built to specifications by the lowest bidder.”

“Good point. KC?”

“Go ahead,” KC responded.

“Isolate the buses and put the secondary generator on standby. Also isolate the APU for the time being, all right?”

“Roger, underway.”

“I can’t believe we don’t have a checklist for lightning strikes,” Leona said. “Maybe we need to create one.”

“Already done,” Mulligan said. “The checklist is something like this. Item one: What was that? Two: Was…was that lightning? Three: Does everything still seem to work? Four: Did anything catch on fire or fall off? Five: Sip coffee. Checklist complete.”

“Sounds very professional.”

“Hey. Ask and ye shall receive.” Mulligan regarded the radar return on the display. “There’s a level off ahead, looks like the entrance to a parking lot. Getting some flutter on the returns—looks like it’s flooded.”

“I see it. Must be where this waterfall is coming from. How deep can it be?” Andrews accelerated up the hill, and the SCEV practically rocketed upward in response. Mulligan held up a hand.

“Take it easy, kid,” he said.

“Calm down, you geezer!” Andrews said as the rig crested the rise. Still accelerating, it plowed through the standing water ahead, sending a tremendous, frothy explosion into the air. The SCEV actually began to deviate from its course as its eight tires fought for purchase through water that was actually deeper than anticipated. The vehicle began to spin out, heeling radically to the right. For an instant, the rig was uncontrolled, reacting to the dual forces of its momentum and the dampening effect of the water. Andrews whooped it up, feeling like a kid doing doughnuts in the snow for the very first time. In the second compartment, KC and Leona did the same. In direct counterpoint, Mulligan grabbed the instrument panel’s glare shield with his left hand, his right going for the co-pilot’s control column. Andrews eased the control column to the left and turned the wheels into the spin. Mulligan followed him through, his hand firmly grasping the co-pilot’s column in what Andrews likened to a death grip.

Old guy can’t take it, he thought with a mental guffaw.

The tires finally caught with a jerk and powered the big rig through the pool. On the other side, it resumed its upward climb without difficulty.

“Yeah, baby!” Andrews said.

“That was awesome!” KC cried.

“Congratulations, sir. You just managed to drift an SCEV,” Mulligan said, a sour tone in his voice. “I thought maybe you were a little too old for that kind of stuff, but stupidity is apparently a bottomless well.”

“Don’t be such a puss, Sarmajor,” Andrews said.

“Seriously,” Leona threw in.

Mulligan shook his head and sighed. “You people would do well to remember this moment when Andrews drives us off into a ravine and we all wake up dead.” He paused. “It was kind of fun, though.”
Andrews chuckled as he guided the rig up the incline. The rain was continuing to come down and showed no sign of letting up, and the water rolled down the road in response. The SCEV remained sure-footed, powering them up the road without any slippage or loss of traction. The vehicle was a true champ, despite Mulligan’s quip about it being built by the lowest-bidding contractor. He swept his eyes across the displays, taking in the vehicle information that wasn’t being relayed to the heads-up display. Everything was nominal. The SCEV was doing exactly what it had been designed to do.

“Straight on till morning,” he muttered.

Mulligan glanced at him. “Where’d you hear that expression?”

Andrews shrugged. “My dad? My mom, before she died, maybe. Why?”

Mulligan shook his head. “Just an echo from the past,” he said quietly.

“Sarmajor, I’m sorry for going gonzo back there and almost spinning us out. I just…I don’t know, it felt right.”

Mulligan laughed heartily. “Son, that was hardly going gonzo. Tossing a flash-bang grenade into an up-armored Humvee right as the crew closed the doors? Now that’s gonzo.”

“Who did that?” KC asked. “Sarmajor, was that you?”

“Perish the thought, Winters. I’m the child of policy and regulation, and the Uniform Code of Military Justice was my disciplinarian. Never have I strayed from the side of right.”

Andrews laughed. “Mulligan, we gotta talk, one of these days.”

“We have a month ahead of us, sir. I suspect we’ll get to it.”

“I’d like to listen in when that happens, Sarmajor,” KC said.

“Well, well, well. Sergeant Winters is finally coming out of her little shell,” Mulligan said. “Don’t worry, madam. I’ll be sure to bend your ear, too.”

“She’ll learn to regret it,” Leona said.

Andrews shook his head at Leona’s audacity. A year ago, she wouldn’t have gotten within a mile of Mulligan. Now, she was practically pulling his chain in public. He discarded that track of thought and went back to piloting the SCEV. According to the course information, the next—and final—waypoint was directly ahead. They were within three minutes of intercepting the barricade the drone had detected. A quick glance at the status display told him there was no chance of launching the UAV under these circumstances. Though the rain wasn’t a major factor, the wind most certainly was. The small aircraft would remain in its enclosure until the wind dropped below twenty miles per hour, which meant the SCEV crew would be reduced to divining the circumstances around them through the rig’s external sensors as well as their own Mark I Eyeballs.

“Closing in on the phase line,” Mulligan said.

“Roger that.”

“Let’s back off on the power a bit, sir. We don’t want to roll into anything nasty.”

Andrews eased back on the control column. “I’ll make the approach at twenty miles per hour indicated, then come to a halt around two hundred yards away from the barricade. That cool by you?”

“That should do fine, sir.”

Andrews peered through the view ports into the stormy afternoon. The rain wasn’t letting up, but it wasn’t impeding the vehicle in any way. The SCEV went over a gentle rise, and he brought it into a sweeping turn to the right, following the curvature of the road. Halfway through the curve, he brought the control column back, standing it just ahead of idle speed. The SCEV responded and slowed, its big tires slicing through the water coursing down the roadway. Lightning flashed, illuminating the barricade ahead in a stroboscopic flash.

“There it is,” he said. He brought the control column back to the neutral position and toed the brakes. The rig came to a gentle halt, idling in the gloom. Ahead, revealed to them courtesy of both high-intensity LEDs and the millimeter wave radar, was the barricade.

Andrews and Mulligan looked at it for a long moment. The square panels lying on the pavement were actually chunks of plywood with nails driven through it, a decidedly low-tech but still efficient method to cripple vehicular traffic. The SCEV wasn’t imperiled; even if Andrews had driven over them, the rig’s tires were sufficiently robust to survive such an encounter. The rest of the barricade was less impressive. It was mostly concertina wire stretched across several wooden members in three layers. The barriers extended well off the road, disappearing into the trees that stood off to either side.

“The barricade’s designed to keep people out,” Mulligan said. “Won’t do much to stop vehicles that get past the first layer. Which makes sense—no one’s going to be driving around here, anyway.”

“So how do they?” Andrews asked. “I mean, fuel supplies have to be inert by now. Especially diesel.”

“Biodiesel,” Mulligan said. “It’s the only answer.” He reached down to the center console and fiddled with the output controls for the millimeter wave radar dome on the SCEV’s back. The radar returns revealed more metal extending outward from the barricade, indicating that the barrier ran a good hundred yards or more through the trees and light brush that dotted the hillside.

It also revealed human silhouettes on either side of the idling SCEV, hunkering down in hide sites that might have been invisible to the human eye, but were transparent to millimeter wave radar.

“Well. Look at that,” Mulligan said.

“Jesus.” Andrews’s mouth suddenly went dry. “They’re here. On overwatch.”

“Yep. Looks like.” Mulligan examined the display silently for a moment, then turned and looked at Andrews. “Orders?”

Andrews considered it for a full minute, turning things over in his mind. This is what they’d come to discover—survivors of the Sixty Minute War. But memories of contact with Law’s group in San Jose were the first thing he thought of. If the people lying outside the rig were hostile, what was the best way to approach them?

“They watched us roll up, Mike,” Leona said from the second compartment. She and KC were looking at the same data as the two men in the cockpit. “They haven’t taken any action against us yet.”

“It’s probably not every day an armored all-terrain vehicle rolls up to their front door,” Mulligan said. “But they aren’t moving very much. With all the lights and the engine noise, they have to know we’re here, even through the storm. So they’re doing what we’re doing. Watching and waiting.”

“So let’s give them a bone,” Andrews said slowly. “I think it’s probably on us to make the first move.”

“Agree,” Mulligan said, and Andrews was surprised by that. Mulligan activated the forward-looking infrared turrets located at the front and rear of the SCEV and panned them in opposite directions. The front slewed to the right, while the rear turret slewed to the left. The supercooled planar arrays in both units picked up the radiant heat of the bodies lying out in the woods, though it could not display them completely. “They’re lying behind earthen berms. Actual fighting positions, like revetments,” Mulligan said.

“Makes sense. I’m going to contact them over the loudspeakers. I’ll ask them to approach.”

“Roger that. in the meantime, I’d like to take the minis off standby and put them in manual mode. Just in case things blow up, I’d like you to reverse a hundred meters or so. That way, I’ll be able to engage both groups while we retreat. They’re well inside the minimum range of the Hellfires, so it’ll have to be guns if we need to defend ourselves.”

“Understood. Lee, KC, we’re going to try and contact those folks outside. Keep an eye out and keep your harness straps pulled tight. If we have to move, I’ll reverse us at max power down the hill. Could be rough.”

“Roger that, Mike,” Leona said.

“Got it,” KC affirmed.

“Okay. Going onto the loudspeaker.” Andrews flipped a switch on the radio panel on the center console, then pressed the red transmit button on the control column. “People to the left and right of this vehicle. We’re not hostile. Please send a delegate to the right side of the rig. We’re here to help you, not fight you.”

Andrews watched the displays, both the radar and infrared. The people started moving, but not in a meaningful way. More likely, they were looking at each other, trying to figure out what to do. That they’d been detected under cover was likely unsettling to them.

“I see rifles,” he said, examining the infrared imagery.

“Yep,” Mulligan replied.

“Mike, have some electromagnetic activity,” Leona said. “Looks like they have radio comms with each other.”

“Frequency?”

“GMRS format, broadcasting on four-six-two point five-six-two-five. Ah, we can catch that, it’s on the UHF spectrum. I’m rolling onto that freq on the set back here.” There was a pause. “Okay, the signal’s encrypted. Getting good directional slices though, they’re definitely talking back and forth.”

“Interesting,” Mulligan said. “They have radios, and more importantly, they have a way to charge the batteries. Let’s give them a frequency, Captain. They can talk to us over the radio.”

Andrews looked over at Mulligan and grinned. “Damn, Sarmajor. Great idea. Let’s roll them over to, uh, point five-eight-seven-five?” He flipped the SCEV’s primary radio set from HF to UHF and dialed in the frequency. “Huh, they’re using interstitial channels as opposed to primary.”

“Probably less of a chance of anyone listening in…which makes me wonder if there is someone else out there listening in,” Mulligan said. “And if so, what does that mean?

“We won’t know until we talk to them,” Andrews said. “Right?”

“Roger that, sir. Anyway, if they can broadcast unencrypted, that frequency should do. Unless they want to give us the private key for their commo, but I’m going to presume that’s not happening,” Mulligan said.

“All right. Let me pass that on to them.” He paused for a moment. “That should freak them out even more, when we tell them what freq to tune their radios to.”

Mulligan snorted. “Looking forward to that.”

Andrews pressed the transmit button on the control column. “People on either side of the vehicle. Roll your handsets over to four-six-two point five-eight-seven-five unencrypted. If you don’t want to approach the vehicle, we can communicate over the radio. Again, that’s five-eight-seven-five. We’ll be waiting to hear from you.” As he spoke, he watched the figures through the IR and MMR returns. Those to the left were picking up and moving out. As were some on the right, but not all. They’d rightly reasoned that the rig had enough tech on it to see through conceal-only cover, and they were moving for denser protection.
“Again, that’s four-six-two point five-eight-seven-five,” Andrews said over the loudspeaker. He heard his own voice echoing off the terrain, even above the rain that continued to pour across the SCEV’s armored hide. That didn’t cause any of the people outside to pause. They quickly filed off into the dark forest, moving quickly and surely. They knew the local geography, and they were actually heading downrange, in the direction of Sisters.

“They couldn’t still be using the town?” Andrews mused.

“Nah. It’s a diversion. They’re not going to want us to know which direction their base is. Curious that they’re out here in such numbers watching the barricade. Makes me wonder if there’s something up that we don’t know about.” Mulligan fell silent for a moment, watching the displays. “That’s a fair amount of manpower out there…I see about eight folks total. I’m thinking that means there’s a pretty sizeable establishment around here somewhere.”

Andrews pointed at the infrared imagery. “Got two hanging back on the right. Nothing else on radar, so no one’s trying to sneak up on us. The others are definitely bugging out.”

“I doubt they’re bugging out, just relocating to another engagement site. They don’t want us wiping them out all at once if things go badly,” Mulligan said. “They’ll want to keep us under surveillance for as long as they can.”

Andrews sat and waited for another minute, then switched off the external speaker and rolled his headset over to the selected GMRS frequency. “This is Mike Andrews, commander of Self-Contained Exploration Vehicle Four. If you’re listening, please respond. Over.”

He and Mulligan watched the pair of silhouettes lying on the ground to the right of the SCEV. They were about two hundred feet from the road. One of them had what looked like an AR-style rifle pointed at the rig, which was going to be about as useful as a can opener in an attack. The other person simply watched the idling vehicle, sitting motionless in the rain. Andrews wondered if they were at least somewhat dry, as they were shielded by the branches of two pine trees. Their heads moved. They were talking amongst themselves. The fidelity of the infrared was better than the radar, and Andrews was able to get a general idea of their dress: pants, coats, hoods. Each carried a rifle and a small rucksack. He watched the smaller of the pair raise something to his face.

“Who are you?” Not a him—a her. The voice that came over the radio was female. Her voice was a flat monotone.

“Captain Mike Andrews, United States Army. Who are you? Over.”

“What do you want?”

“We’re here to assist. We’re from a federal reservation in the south. It’s a complicated story, but our mission is to restore the United States. We have access to supplies, medicine, weapons, technology…anything you guys might need.” Andrews paused for a moment. “This might go better if we can meet face to face. I’m willing to meet you with one of my crew outside the vehicle.”

“Where in the south?”

Andrews looked at Mulligan, who shrugged. “Tell ’em. It’s not like they’ll ever be able to drop by for a visit.”

“We’re from an installation called Harmony Base, located in western Kansas. Over.”

“Kansas was wiped off the map.”

“The surface of Kansas was, that’s for sure. But we’re a couple of hundred feet beneath the surface. Harmony is a subterranean base. Like I said, it’s complicated. There’s a lot to discuss. We should meet. Over.”

There was a few minutes of silence as the two people out in the forest discussed it. Andrews saw their heads moving.

“More radio chatter on the first freq,” Leona said. “Now more on another. Point seven-one-two-five. Got returns coming from almost due north of our position.”

“That’s gotta be where their base is,” Andrews said. He began scrolling through a map on the multifunction display in front of him. “Not a lot out there. Small town called Sherwood…” He tapped the icon for the town, and another window opened displaying what little data there was in the computer regarding the community. “Hmm, maybe ‘town’ is a bit of a stretch. Says here it’s an ‘unincorporated census-designated community’, whatever that means.”

“Means there was never any formal government,” Mulligan said. “Could be anything. A camping ground, a resort, even a retirement community.”

“If it’s a retirement community, does that mean we get to drop you off?” Leona asked.

“Where did you get all of this sarcasm from?” Mulligan said.

“Gee, I wonder,” she replied.

Mulligan groaned. “Typical.” To Andrews: “It makes a little bit of sense if these folks set up shop there. I mean, no prying eyes, no real oversight, but close enough to Bend in case someone needed something drastic, like emergency medical care. Otherwise, it’s just a speck on a map out here in the boonies.”

The radio crackled again. “What if we don’t want any help from you?” the woman asked. As she transmitted, lightning arced across the sky, blurring the transmission with a burst of static.

“Come talk to us, at least,” Andrews responded. “You send two, we’ll send two. We have to stay near the vehicle for security purposes, but you won’t be harmed. Over.”

“Wait,” came the response.

“Roger that,” Andrews replied. He and Mulligan watched the displays, waiting for their correspondents to come back to them. It took a while, but in the meantime, Leona reported that the radio traffic was continuing on the other bands. The radio direction finder didn’t indicate any transmissions were coming from the pair of shapes lying to the right of the rig, it was all coming from the west and north. The two people in the forest were in listen-only mode, but Andrews was certain they were getting directions from a higher authority.

“Well, at least the rain is starting to taper off,” Mulligan said.

“Kace, how’s everything with the rig?” Andrews asked, even though he had all the data available to him. He just wanted something to do, and discussing the weather with Mulligan wasn’t particularly inviting.

“We’re totally good to go,” KC said. “If there was a problem, I’d let you know.”

“Okay. Thanks.” Andrews fidgeted in his seat. “I wonder if we can break their encryption,” he said.

“In a while we might be able to,” Leona said. “I’m running it through the OpenSky and triple-DES decryption programs, but I’m not coming up with anything. These folks might have come up with their own encryption scheme, though. If that’s the case, then we’re out of luck. I’m letting the computers take a swing at it, but it’s going to soak up a lot of bandwidth.”

“Well, keep at it,” Andrews said. “Maybe we’ll get lucky.”

“And it’s not like we have anything else to do right now,” Mulligan said.

“What, you bored now, Big Sarge?”

“Vacillating between boredom and stark terror, actually.”

Andrews frowned. “Terror?”

“Yeah.” Mulligan jerked a thumb toward the pair in the dark forest to the right of the vehicle. “For all we know, these guys could be coordinating an attack with anti-armor weapons. Or, they could just be lying out there getting soaking wet.”

“You’re thinking too much, man,” Andrews said.

Mulligan looked at him with a furrowed brow. “Do not get complacent, Andrews. Anything can happen out here, and we’re far from help.”

Andrews was about to respond when the woman’s voice came over the radio again. “We’re coming. We’ll listen to what you have to say, but that’s it. And we won’t stay for long. You agree?”

“Roger, we agree. Myself and one of my crew will meet you on the right side of the vehicle. We’ll be out in just a few minutes. And thank you.”
There was no reply, but the two people in the forest gathered their gear and slowly, cautiously rose to their feet. Tentatively, they threaded their way through the pine trees, heading toward the idling SCEV.

EARTHFALL 2: Among Corpses, A Clue

October 3, 2018 3 comments

The remaining crew of SCEV Four has dropped off Laird, Jordello, and the others at a replenishment site in California and pressed on with its mission to survey the area around Bend, Oregon. As the rig proceeds northerly, the effects of the Sixty Minute War become decidedly less pronounced in regards to the utter physical destruction, but the loss of human life remains total. Spirits are starting to sag in the rig as it maneuvers toward Bend under a continuous blanket of dirty clouds.

As always, the below text is offered unedited and unproofed, with no guarantee it will appear in the final product.

The next day found SCEV Four cruising up US-97 beneath perpetually sullen skies. The rig rolled through a multitude of small towns—Chemult, Crescent, Gilchrist—all of them similar to each other in that they had died long, lingering deaths. The fields surrounding the towns were overgrown and untended, which was another in a long line of disappointments. If there were people about, they’d have to farm to survive for the long term. Even though there were towns and cities in the area, those could offer only so much sustenance. But so far all the farmland was untended, running wild and fallow.

There were some bright spots to consider. The radiation count was substantially lower, to the point now where an unprotected human could exist for days without fearing the more dreadful effects of exposure. If proper decontamination procedures were followed, then a sizeable population could actually thrive so long as it was careful about what foods were ingested and procedural hygiene was followed with something akin to mania.

Still no signs of cultivation, though, Andrews thought. The die-off out here must’ve been immense.

He maneuvered the SCEV around abandoned vehicles. In one field was the rotting carcass of an airliner—it had been there for more than a decade, and weeds and vines were wrapped around the exposed stringers and beams of its fuselage. Parts of the plane were missing, as if they’d been cut away.

So someone’s been at work…

The closer they drew to Bend, the greater the desolation. The towns and neighborhoods surrounding the city were quiet and still. There was no smoke rising into the sky, so no cooking fires or the like had been struck. It was one of the primary signs of habitation: Fire and smoke. And without smoke, there would be no fire. But that could have been a mandate of the security situation as well. Visible smoke could notify raiders where their next meal was coming from, so it was conceivable cooking took place in the nighttime hours.

“Well, we’re here,” Andrews said to Mulligan as he slowed the SCEV to fifteen miles per hour. “As per the mission brief, we’re not going into the city itself, so we’ll depart the roadway here and start coming around to the right.”

“Roger that. You interested in keeping the wheels on concrete for a bit longer? There’s a residential street about seven hundred meters ahead.”

“Yeah, road surfaces are pretty good up here. You talking about this exit point here? What is it, China Hat Road?” Andrews pointed at the map display.

“Yeah. I figure if all goes well, we can follow that down then come left onto, uh, Knott Road. That’ll start taking us northeast, and we can loop around to the north and look for a place to halt and start our initial observation.”

“We’ll be cutting through a residential subdivision,” Andrews noted.

“So we will,” Mulligan confirmed. “Listen, you want to find survivors, families will probably have a lower mortality rate than singles. Right?”

“Right. Very well. Brief the crew.”

Mulligan loosened his harness just enough to lean over and speak around the bulkhead. He passed on an abbreviated version of what the two men had discussed to Leona and KC. When they signaled acknowledgement, he sat up again, tightened his straps, and went back on the instruments. Andrews found the road easily enough, and turned the rig onto it. It was abandoned, save for an old pickup truck that was slowly rotting away on one curb. A townhouse community was to their immediate left. The structures were all dark brown and apparently vacant. Andrews kept an eye on them as the SCEV trundled past. There was no sense of movement, though the property was surrounded by a cement wall. He checked the MMR display, and upped the output a little bit. The wall was thick enough that the sensor couldn’t see through it, so he dialed it back down to the usual ten mile range.

“Yeah, that’s the thing about civilization. Lots of structures to clutter up the radar picture,” Mulligan said. “We want to see someone, we’ll need to keep eyes out. Looks like most of the buildings are on your side—you want me to take over so you can stay visual?”

“Your rig,” Andrews said, indicating that he was transferring control over to Mulligan.

“My rig.” Mulligan put his right hand on the sidestick column and took command of the SCEV. Andrews released his and kept his eyes on the townhouse complex. There was really nothing much to see. The parking lot was fairly empty, as people were at work when the attack happened. Multiple blasts of electromagnetic energy would have fried the ignition and computer systems of non-hardened civilian vehicles, so anyone with a car or truck of a vintage newer than 1975 would be reduced to walking. Next, the SCEV cruised past what a large rolling field. A dilapidated sign indicated it was a golf course. What should have been a carefully manicured green was now a field of towering weeds that slowly swayed in the gentle breeze. Fallen pine trees—Ponderosas, mostly—lay scattered about, but new ones were already entrenched, some of them over twelve feet tall. Some were stunted and twisted, possessing significantly fewer needles than they would need in order to continue growing. But others looked for all intents and purposes normal. They were a dark green, and seemed vibrant and full of life.

As the SCEV progressed down the road, it passed more houses. They were of a decent size, and though they appeared weathered, most were in good shape. Some broken windows, but that could have been from temperature changes—for sure, the first several years after the war had been bitterly cold from the obscurants that had been blasted into the atmosphere, the so-called “nuclear winter” stage. That had likely resulted in most of the flora dying off, which in turn meant dire times for any human survivors who hadn’t succumbed to the radioactive fallout that had blanketed the area. Even though the weather patterns worked in favor of reducing the total lethality of the storms of radioactive particles that rode the winds, it didn’t eliminate it. Oregon might have suffered far less than Kansas, but it had suffered.

Mulligan piloted the rig through the next turn. Overhead, the sky remained soot gray and generally featureless. The residential neighborhood the vehicle cruised through were quiet and serene. If not for the trees and weeds slowly swaying in the light breeze, it could almost be mistaken for a still photograph.

Finally, they saw signs of previous habitation. A line of containers had been erected near a park, and a multitude of ragged tents surrounded them. The tents were emblazoned with faded red crosses. Earthen berms had been created, and those were only occasionally dotted with clumps of hardly grass or scraggly juniper bushes. Mulligan slowed the rig when it drew abreast of the site.

“Huh. Looks like the Red Cross got in on the act over here,” he said, looking out the side port. “To be honest, things are pretty well preserved, considering.”

“Was this a disaster relief site, then?” Andrews asked.

“Yep.” Mulligan leaned forward and looked around. “I see some tactical trucks. National Guard must’ve responded, as well.”

“You know what, let’s halt here for a bit.”

Mulligan braked the rig to a halt. “What’s on your mind?”

“I kind of want to go EVA and check it out a little more closely.” Andrews released his harness, and the inertial reels retracted the shoulder straps into the seat.

Mulligan looked at him as he set the parking brake. “You ‘kind of’ want to leave the rig and walk around in post-holocaust Bend, Oregon? What the hell for?”

“I want to check out the site. Environment can sustain us without gear, right? Rad count’s super low, lower than we’ve ever seen. We’ll need to obtain physical samples at some point anyway, and this place is as good as any.”

“So what you’re telling me is, you want to step outside and smell the only-slightly-less-radioactive air of the Pacific Northwest?” Mulligan asked. “Sorry sir, that just doesn’t make a lot of sense. I thought the plan was we’d do an initial mobile recon, then find a suitable laager area for longer-term aerial and environmental assessment. Calling a halt at the first point of interest we come across and making an unplanned dismount wasn’t in the OPORD.”

Andrews pointed at the scene outside. “Mulligan, that’s essentially the first sign of a real governmental response we’ve come across. Everyplace else, folks were wiped out before any assets could be mobilized. You say those are National Guard trucks over there?”

“Yeah. So?”

“Where did they come from? There’s no Guard camp in Bend, they’re all north of here in Portland. What are the chances these guys were on-station when things went to hell?”

“Captain, you’re using the presence of some five-ton trucks as the rationale for your decision?” Mulligan shook his head in disbelief.

Leona appeared in the doorway. “What’s up, guys?”

Mulligan jerked his thumb out the side port. “Captain Andrews wants to dismount and check out this relief site.”

“Yeah, it is interesting, I’ll admit,” Leona said. “Mike, why do you want to dismount here?”

“What went down here was a coordinated effort. I’d like a closer look at it, and I figure if the local environment isn’t hostile to life any longer, why not?” Andrews pointed at the MFD in front of him. “Look, the radiation is barely higher than standard background. Temperature’s sixty degrees Fahrenheit, and we have cloud cover to protect us from direct exposure to the sun. I figure so long as we don’t stir up too much dust, we’ll be good to go. Right?”

“We need to conduct an in-depth recon and environmental assessment before we can safely dismount. We’ve done neither,” Mulligan said. “This is standard procedure prior to conducting extra-vehicular activity. You all well know how much I love standard procedures. I’d also like to point out that we have minimal crew redundancy, as we’re running at half-strength. If something goes sideways, we’ll be hard-pressed to improvise a resolution.”

“Well, I can help out with the environmental assessment,” Leona said. “I’ve been collecting metrics the entire time. There’s nothing airborne that can kill us right off the bat, but for sure the soil is pretty heavily contaminated. Not to the degree it is around Harmony, but it’s still potentially harmful if someone were to inhale something. Lots of alpha particles out there, for sure.”

“The rain’s got to have diminished them,” Andrews said.

“That’s conjecture on your part, Mike,” Leona replied. “We don’t have any soil samples to support that supposition.”

Andrews raised his finger. “My point exactly.”

“This is nuts,” Mulligan said. “You didn’t listen to me in San Jose, Andrews—remember that? I wanted Spencer to stay with the rig, and you let him come with us.”

Andrews glared at the sergeant major. “Thanks for the reminder, Mulligan.”

“Not rubbing your nose in it, son. But you need to stop and think about what it is you’re going to accomplish out there. I know you’re eager to find some clues that might lead us to a functional human settlement. But I’m opposed to this method of discovery, and for all the right reasons. We have to make decisions based off of fact, not emotion.”

“Really? Wasn’t leaving Harmony to bury your family an emotional decision, Mulligan? And how smart was it to take the post commanding general with you?” As soon as he’d said it, Andrews felt a surge of regret. It was hateful of him to make that play, and the truth was, Andrews did not hate Mulligan at all.

The comment scandalized Leona. “Mike! What the hell are you doing?”

“Mulligan…Scott, I’m sorry, man,” Andrews said as the blood rushed to his face.

Mulligan waved it away. “It’s cool, Captain. You’re not wrong. For the record, I didn’t want Benchley to come at all. But yeah, me laying my family to rest was a hundred percent emotion, and there was no logical reason behind it. However, we’re not in the same set of circumstances out here. Like I always tell you guys in training: Do as I say, not as I do.” Mulligan’s voice was flat and expressionless. He turned his head and swept his eyes across the displays for a moment, then looked outside. “Listen, you want to do this, it’s your call. But I’d really recommend you suit up anyway. We can never be too careful. San Jose taught us that. Right?” He turned back to Andrews, and the hard cast in his eyes made Andrews realize the big man left California with regrets as well.

“All right. That’s a deal.” Andrews looked at Leona. “Lee, you up for this?”

“Absolutely,” she said.

Mulligan stirred then. “Hey, wait a minute. We can’t have both of you dismount. Lieutenant Eklund should stay with the rig—can’t have both officers out of the rig at the same time. I’ll go with you, sir.”

“I’ll need to get samples while I’m out there, and process them in the remote lab,” Leona said by way of protest. On the rig’s right side, next to the outer airlock door, another sealed compartment held a small biochemistry lab where samples could be processed and analyzed without the danger of bringing potential contaminants inside the SCEV.

“I can collect the samples and load them in the lab,” Mulligan said. “Getting a couple of scoops of dirt and some organic matter isn’t going to be a real test of my abilities.”

“Mulligan, you can’t even resist a burrito.”

Mulligan cracked a smile. “Cute.” He sobered immediately. “Both of you can’t go, for reasons already discussed. End of story.”

Leona sighed and slowly turned to Andrews. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to remain in the rig, Captain?”

“What, and let you and Mulligan have all the fun? You might start fraternizing out there.”

Mulligan barked out a laugh and shook his head. “Son, you have severe socialization issues.”

***

The SCEV’s airlock was supposed to be big enough to process two people at a time, but the designers had never intended one of the occupants be big enough to play guard on an NBA team. Andrews had to stand against one bulkhead to accommodate Mulligan’s mass.

“This would’ve been easier without all the gear,” Andrews said. Both men wore full environmental suits with facemasks. They carried weapons and rucksacks with spare ammo and supplies, just in case. Mulligan had insisted.

Mulligan shifted his big 7.62-millimeter rifle. “Hey, you can always go back, sir.”

“Yeah, not even. Four, Andrews. Commo check.”

Leona’s voice came back immediately.“Good commo, Mike.”

“Rog. We’re going to cycle the airlock now.” Andrews reached over and pressed the button that activated the outer airlock door. The light above the door turned red, and a tone sounded. Then the door opened, splitting in two, one section rising up, the second lowering to the ground, forming a ramp. Mulligan was first out. As soon as he was clear of the airlock, his rifle was in his gloved hands. He scanned the area, keeping the weapon at low ready as he stepped down to the street and drifted a few feet to his left. Andrews followed him out and stepped to the right. He had his own rifle in his hands, and he scanned the area to the rear of the rig. The engines droned their monotone song. He heard a vague electric whine coming from the machine’s wedge-shaped bow. It was the minigun pods as Leona conducted an azimuth check. The SCEV’s guns were hot.

“All right, we’re clear,” Andrews reported. Wind swirled around him, not warm, not cold.

“Cycling the airlock now—make sure you guys stay clear.” This was KC. A second later, the airlock doors hissed closed and locked with an audible thunk.

“Clear left,” Mulligan reported.

“Clear right,” Andrews replied.

“Okay, Captain. It’s your show. Where do you want to go first?”

“The tent city. I want to see what’s in there. Maybe check out what’s on the other side of that berm, too.”
Mulligan scanned the area, the stock of his rifle still in his right armpit. “Let’s try not to break visual contact with the rig, if at all possible. We don’t want Eklund and Winters having to guess where we need supporting fires if things blow up in our faces.”

“Roger that. I’m listening to you this time, big man.”

“I must still not be very persuasive, Captain. I’ve noticed we’re outside the rig.”

Andrews snorted and led the way. Moving slowly and deliberately, he stepped off the road and walked toward the relief site. The grass was firm and springy beneath his feet. Even though this portion of the nation was more temperate than the Midwest, it still experienced seasonal change. The grass was starting to come alive now, and its color indicated it was still processing chlorophyll. That meant the overcast skies they’d been traveling under for the past several days wasn’t constant, and despite the severely depleted ozone layer, the grass had adapted to the change in solar radiance. It was mostly crabgrass and weeds now, of course; any planted grass had died long ago. Some of the weeds stood almost three feet high, slender stalks topped with thin tendrils. It looked almost like some sort of wild crop.

“Mulligan, you know what kind of vegetation this is?” he asked.

“Wheat grass. Bane of many a homeowner back in the day. I see even nuclear war can’t kill it.”

“Four, you want samples of this?” Andrews asked.

“Roger that, but you don’t have to do it right this second,” Leona responded.

“Got it.” Andrews continued pressing forward, walking toward the row of tattered tents. He approached one adorned with a faded red cross and stopped beside it, turning to look over his shoulder for Mulligan.

The big sergeant major was about twenty feet off to his left, already orienting on the tent, rifle still held at low ready. He gave Andrews a curt nod as a puff of wind made the tent’s torn fabric shell ruffle like distant, irregular thunder. Andrews pushed aside the remains of the tent’s entrance flap and stepped inside.

There were several cots inside. Perhaps at one time, they’d been arranged neatly; now they were sprawled everywhere. A line of tables was at the far side of the tent. Some were on their sides, others were still upright. Moldering boxes sat on them. Andrews walked over and looked at the boxes without touching them. They were faded and severely weathered, but he could make out the red cross on them. Decayed paper was inside. As far as he could tell, they might have been pamphlets of some sort. Plastic water bottles were scattered about, some still full, but the liquid inside was cloudy and certainly not fit for human consumption. He turned his attention toward the cots then, moving around them. They were soiled with rust-colored stains. Blood, or some other substance he supposed. Then he saw a small hand sticking out from beneath one, or more correctly, the remains of a hand. The flesh was gone, leaving only dull bone. Some of the fingers were missing. He cast around for a moment, looking for them. He saw one bone lying in a patch of weeds, then another a few feet away. They were very small. They’d belonged to a child, who had died here in this tent.

He didn’t bother with the cots any further. If anyone was still here, he was ten years too late to help them.

He turned and saw Mulligan looking in through a hole in the tent wall, rifle still at low ready. He jerked his head toward the next tent.

“More bodies in there,” he said. “They’ve been there for a while.”

Andrews pointed at the scattered finger bones. “You see these bones here? They’re spread around a bit.”

“Animals foraging, probably,” Mulligan said. “Dead people can make a good meal, even if they’ve been irradiated. We probably want to stay out of the tents, sir. I don’t think there’s a chance we can catch anything, but let’s not push it.”

Andrews nodded and left the tent. The two men wandered through the camp, peering inside other tents but not venturing inside. Lots of people had been here—hundreds, possibly. Desiccated corpses lay in many of the tents, while others had been apparently used, then vacated. Some of the structures had collapsed, entombing anything inside beneath weathered nylon and plastic that would probably never degrade. Many of the tents had cots, but no bodies. Plastic bags were everywhere as well, pinned wherever they’d been blown. Mulligan bent over one.

“Lettering’s still legible on this one. Saline, it says. Looks like the good ol’ Red Cross was doing what it was supposed to,” he said, straightening up.

Andrews pointed at the wall of earth. “What’s with the berm?”

“Don’t know. Let’s check it out. Don’t walk on it, though—it’s surface soil, so it’s going to be hot.”

“Roger that.”

They walked toward one berm, then paralleled it until they came to its termination. Andrews stepped around it and saw it wasn’t a berm after all. Mulligan followed him, and both men peered into the deep pit on the other side.

It was full of bodies. Some were in body bags, others wrapped in blankets and sleeping bags, and a good number had just been dumped in with whatever they had been wearing when they expired. Adults, children, even household pets.

“Mass grave,” Mulligan said after a few moments. “Makes sense—too many to bury individually. A lot of them aren’t even in body bags, so it looks like the sanitation procedures were breaking down. Guess these people didn’t have it so good, after all.”

Andrews shook his head. “Damn, man.” There was something eerie about standing on the precipice of so much death. So many lives lost, so many dreams unfulfilled. He couldn’t shake the notion that he was surrounded by a host of restless spirits, lamenting their deaths and those they had loved.

That could have been me, he thought, and he was surprised at how selfish he felt at the notion. He’d seen bodies before, obviously, but never so many in one place at one time. That they had wound up rotting away in the bottom of an unfilled hole in the ground was shameful.

“What the fuck is that?” Mulligan muttered.

Andrews turned away from the pit. “What?”

Mulligan didn’t answer. He walked over to the other side of the grave site and stopped. Andrews followed. Mulligan stood motionless, looking down at something on the ground.

A bouquet of wild flowers. Two different varieties, one with white petals surrounding a yellow center, the other purple with white tendrils extruding from its pistil. They’d been neatly cut and tied together with a piece of string that was still white.

“Holy shit,” Andrews said.

“Guys, what have you found?” Leona asked over the radio. She’d been monitoring their communications.

“Flowers,” Mulligan reported. “Anything on the MMR? Is it still tracking in the ten mile band?”

“Roger, I haven’t altered the setting. What’s this about flowers?”

“Lee, we’ve found what looks like a, uh, bouquet of flowers here. They don’t look like they’re anything special, just something wild we haven’t really seen yet, but…”

“What’s their condition?” Leona asked.

“A couple of days old, if you ask me,” Mulligan replied, “but I only know how to grow tobacco plants underground. Botany was never my thing.” He stepped away from the flowers and starting scanning the area. He raised his rifle a bit as he turned to the north. Andrews mimicked him, only looking southerly.

“Something on the ground over there, few dozen meters to our right,” he reported.

Mulligan turned. “Got it. Let’s check it out.”

“What do you guys see?” Leona asked.

“Stand by, Four.” Andrews and Mulligan moved fast as they rounded the far side of the pit and walked along its far side. Mulligan slowed, stopped, and after taking another look around, knelt.

“Tracks,” he said.

“What kind of tracks?” Leona asked over the radio.

Mulligan shook his head in exasperation. “Tire tracks. From a truck. That’s about the best we can tell you right now.”

“Where are they headed?”

Andrews turned and looked farther south. “They either came from those five-ton trucks, or they went there,” he said.

“Makes sense,” Mulligan said, rising to his feet.

“Why’s that?”

The sergeant major pointed at the tire tracks with his rifle. “Because those were made by a five-ton. Let’s check them out.”

They jogged to where the old National Guard trucks sat. They’d been there for years, and their tires were flat. Mulligan slung his rifle and walked up to one. He pulled open the passenger door in the cab and peered inside briefly, then walked to the front.

“Hood’s already unlatched.” Mulligan reached over and grabbed a handhold and lifted. The hood tilted upward, rising on hinges that squealed in protest at the front of the truck. He looked over the diesel engine beneath, and Andrews stepped up beside him. The engine had been cannibalized, and judging from the unpatinaed metal surfaces where the removed parts had been, it had happened relatively recently.

“Well, Captain, it looks like I owe you an apology,” Mulligan said as he stepped back from the truck and lowered the hood. “I guess coming out here wasn’t such a bullshit idea after all.” He put his hands on his hips and looked at the truck, eyes narrowed behind his mask’s visor.

“Leona, let’s get the UAV up in the air,” Andrews said.

“Winds are starting to climb, Mike. And the ceiling is pretty low. We might not be able to recover it automatically,” Leona replied.

Andrews considered that. “That’s all right. I’ll put back in the cradle manually if I have to. Mulligan and I are going to return now. We’ll grab samples later.”